AL-HAFFEH, SYRIA (BNO NEWS) –The town of al-Haffeh in western Syria is largely deserted with many burnt down buildings, evidence of heavy fighting and a strong stench of dead bodies in the air, United Nations (UN) military observers which entered the town on Thursday said.
Staff from the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) had been trying to access al-Haffeh for nearly a week but were repeatedly blocked by Syrian government forces, in violation with an earlier agreement. UN-Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan demanded immediate access to the town on Monday, but it was not until Thursday that UN military observers were allowed in.
“The town appeared deserted. Most Government institutions, including the post office, were set on fire from inside,” said Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for UNSMIS. “Archives were burnt, stores were looted and set on fire, residential homes appeared rummaged and the doors were open.”
The pro-Assad Baath Party headquarters in the town was shelled and appeared to be the site of heavy fighting, the observers reported. “Remnant of heavy weapons and a range of caliber arms were found in the town,” Ghosheh said. “Cars, both civilian and security were also set on fire and damaged.”
The observers were unable to determine how many people were killed in the town, which is located in Latakia province and was previously an opposition stronghold. “A strong stench of dead bodies was in the air and there appeared to be pockets in the town where fighting is still ongoing,” Ghosheh added. “The number of casualties is still unclear.”
Earlier this week, Syrian state-run media reported that ‘armed terrorist groups’ had attacked public and private institutions in the Al-Haffeh area, killing an unknown number of people. The reports, which could not be independently verified, claimed the town’s hospital was among the buildings which were burnt down.
The Syrian opposition and the international community have accused troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of carrying out two recent massacres, killing 108 people in the region of Houla, in Homs province, and 78 people in the village of Qubair in Hama province. The Syrian government has rejected the claim, accusing the opposition which it refers to as terrorists.
The crisis in Syria began in March 2011 as a pro-democracy protest movement, similar to those across the Middle East and North Africa. The Syrian government violently cracked down on the protests, setting off an armed conflict between pro-Assad forces and anti-government forces. More than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the violence.